Designosaurs—Before Photoshop, before email, graphic designers somehow managed to do without.
At a party not long ago, I was approached by a young board member of the local Advertising Federation, who asked me if I might like to speak at next year’s Ad Awards ceremony as one of the old guard of the Baton Rouge graphic design community.
“I doubt if many of the current movers and shakers have ever heard of me or my contemporaries,” I protested, remembering how my onstage, modest acceptance of a 2008 Lifetime Achievement Award was overshadowed by the ambient tinkling of cocktail glasses, roaring conversation, and a faint sprinkling of anemic applause. “Oh, no!” she replied, “I think people will just be glad to know you guys (meaning designers of my generation, I guess) are still alive.” To the background music of her profuse apologies and general backpedaling, I managed a sardonic little grin. “I know what you mean,” I said; and I really did.
Designosaurs won’t tell you that in 1980 we had to trudge to work in snowdrifts or paddle a pirogue to the office in hurricane winds, but there were definite hardships by today’s standards, though we thought we were madly productive and quite trendy at the time. The pressure to create was as thickly palpable as it is today; but the process, in all its tedium, carried an inherent beauty. There was much meticulous handwork involved. I prided myself on the pristine elegance of my mechanicals (pasted-up artwork in black and white from which a negative image was produced and duplicated by a printing press).
Before creating the mechanical, a designer had to show her client a rough idea of how his future logo, ad, brochure, or billboard might look. Many designers chose a hazy watercolor-type approach, using a mix of Rapidograph pens and markers on tracing paper, mounted on white illustration board, and covered, always, with a flap of pristine vellum or a signature paper stock.
After a visual concept was client-approved, various elements were, of necessity, farmed out to certain suppliers before the final artwork could be produced. Long, odorous galleys of type for ads and brochures were belched out from typesetting machines—early computer-like monsters which printed type on photographic paper, bathed it in a nasty internal tray of developer, then regurgitated the long strip, as wet and smelly as a rancid dill pickle. Local print shops or the cramped and squalid offices of mom-and-pop typesetters were where all the words in our ads came from.
There were even more people involved. Proof sheets and photographs had to be trundled to photographers and back. Pre-press companies made color-separated negatives of our color illustrations and photographs, and the negatives were then picked up and delivered to printers. To accomplish all this scurrying, we employed runners, mostly young high school or college students who fetched to and from all these suppliers who were so vital to our survival as designers.
Ken Adams, veteran of Root & Associates and now a partner at 2G Marketing Communications, remembers when a new runner set out to deliver a stack of fresh, clean mechanicals on his motorcycle. Before the young man reached his destination, the boards began to slip and slide and soon splayed themselves out onto the blacktop to be run over and spoiled by passing cars. The runner sneaked the worst of the lot back into the office and, in a private corner, tried his best to scrub out the tire marks using an eraser—to no avail. He called the printer in desperation and was assured that the streaks and greasy mars could be touched up by their strippers. (No, not that sort. Strippers were the guys in the negative department. In fact, stripping was sometimes a small part of my own stint as Art Director at Printing, Incorporated—but that’s another story.
Martin Flanagan of X Design recalls the time when he shipped precious, securely packaged artwork for an annual report by Greyhound bus to an out-of-state printing company. Unfortunately, a heavy truck axel was loaded on top of Martin’s box in the baggage compartment and somehow, during the long trip, worked its way through packaging and artwork, destroying weeks of work which had to be, of course, totally redone and in great haste.
Yes children, I hate to admit this, but there was no Photoshop back in the day. Flanagan said he misses the years when photo shoots included their own special effects. For objects to seem suspended in mid-air, for instance, elaborate systems of wires or dowels and other creative props had to be implemented to suspend said objects; a single photo shoot could last a full day. Photo touch-ups were done by hand, were quite rare, and necessitated shipping the originals to an expert in Dallas, Texas, who took a while and charged an arm and a leg.
Martin also remembers a meeting with the board of directors of a large corporation where he showed them the rough designs and photos he chose for their brochure. One board member insisted on seeing all the photographs and chose one of the CEO that she believed to be greatly superior. Martin graciously asked the lady to view the photo through his magnifying apparatus, where he pointed out the precise reason for the impossibility of this portrait’s ever making it into print. While it was indeed the most flattering pose, the position of the gentleman’s outstretched thumb was such that, from the particular angle, it appeared to be a questionable appendage protruding from a sensitive area of his trousers. Nowadays a designer might have simply eliminated the embarrassment using Photoshop.
The advent of the computer into the design industry not only left many typesetters, pre-press firms, photo retouchers, and other suppliers out of a job, it replaced roomfuls of costly equipment and supplies: spindly architects’ drawing tables, awkward T-squares, acrylic triangles, unwieldy parallel bars, pica rulers, expensive Illustration board, Rapidograph pens, squirrel hair brushes, hot, fume-generating electric waxers; harsh and intoxicating chemicals like rubber cement and its thinner; lung-damaging acrylic sprays, liquid white-out, bulky and expensive necessities like PMT cameras and their stinky processors, light-sensitive PMT paper and film, dangerous X-acto blades and mat cutters, that silky, sweet-smelling Amberlith and its cheaper and cruder cousin, Rubylith; endless rolls of white tape, masking pens for negative touch-ups, hundreds of Zip-a-tone pattern screens and registration marks, thousands of sheets of Chartpak press type lettering and their appropriate burnishers. All of these materials, which had been implemented for page design from the year 1904—when Ira Washington Rubel’s offset press rolled out America’s first printed ream of paper—were rendered obsolete by the entrance of the Apple Macintosh and the first computer-aided page layout and design application, Aldus Pagemaker, released in 1986.
Printing problems as well as production plagued us in the days of hand-separated color. Ed Lakin, another one of Baton Rouge’s finest long-time designers, relates an incident in which he was commissioned to produce artwork for a series of Baton Rouge Advocate Sunday magazine covers in full-color, something that was rarely done at the time because of the great expense. This meant doing his own color separations—a frightening task for the inexperienced. For a watercolor wash to appear over a pencil sketch, Lakin had to determine which percentages of the four colors—cyan (blue), magenta, yellow and black—went where.
Lakin explained, “My artwork for each cover had eight to seventeen Amberlith overlays, all painstakingly hand-cut with registration marks applied. The newspaper production people had never seen anything that complex. The first three covers came out fine, but the last one was a pen and ink drawing with a watercolor wash. The harmonica player’s skin tone was supposed to be a rich brown. It turned out purple. There was no getting around it, he had K&B purple skin. I didn't know enough to have asked for a proof. The Sunday when the paper came out, I was sure I was going to be fired; but no one ever said a word. I later learned that the printers at the paper thought it looked wrong, but decided it was cool that we had someone like Andy Warhol, who saw other colors in things. The word went out that the cover was the way I had intended it.”
The advent of Adobe software products in the late ‘80s took the fearful guesswork out of full-color production. But there is still much to learn about the ever-changing software, and this keeps me happy. I became a totally computer-based freelance designer in 1995, even though my former office staff had used Macs for bookkeeping and billing since 1984. Compared to the rollicking atmosphere of advertising agencies and design firms of the past, with their dependence upon cross-town outsourcing, errand-running, and sometimes hazardous shipping, my graphic design business is a solitary pastime. I have clients and suppliers whom I’ve never met in person. I email PDF proofs or, at most, present a full-color printout from my wide-format color laser printer to clients for their approval, after which I upload files electronically to printers in states and countries I’ve never visited, interacting on the phone with people I’ll never meet.
No comps, no mat board, no sweaty-palmed presentations, and most times, no meetings. There’s a great freedom in this. I can sit at my computer in paint-spattered blue jeans or in pajamas, like right now, only dressing up when I lunch in town. I do miss the sweet smells of Amberlith overlays and rubber cement, though.